In the morning, while you await the rush of boiling water that will jostle its way past the grounds of coffee and on its way to becoming espresso, you are in the hovering state known as limbo.You are aware of being awake, but not as complete in the process as you might wish.
You are in an indeterminate now that wants coffee. But the coffee is still in its evolutionary state. You in effect are stuck, waiting for the indeterminate now, and the still-evolving coffee to align. At such moments, you think of the apt-but-abstract paradox of Schrodinger's Cat. With you as the cat.
When you have finished a project, formatted it, then sent it off, you are in that no-person's land of limbo, wondering if you will ever again visualize a thing so sumptuous as that last work, indeed wondering if you will ever work again. Each new work calls for what is essentially the relearning of such craft as you might have. This limbo involves the wonder if you will even be able to accomplish the state of being derivative of your earlier self.
When you watch from your ringside seat at a battle between your needs and your conscience, no need to sit down so the spectators behind you can see; like you, those spectators are in limbo.
Limbo is neither here nor there, even though it resonates with qualities of each, conveying at once the senses of familiarity and home with the tug and magic of elsewhere, that remarkable and different country where you have sought residence all your life.
The sidewalks of limbo are painted with shrewd, devilish trompes l'oeil, those mischievous tricks of perception and judgement that lead you to think you are stepping down on something other than what it appears to be, or sidestepping to avoid landing with all your weight on an illusion of a caterpillar or a lobster or a sleeping cat.
A person in limbo is a person who may be described as torn, or perhaps stretched, or even drawn. The quality of ductility comes to you mind when thinking of limbo; a person who is being exerted to the limits of tensile and ductile strength. Of the elements you know any small thing about, the most ductile is copper, able to be extended, extruded, if you will, into a long, thin strand.
Characters are caught in various limbos such as waiting for a thing to happen, a person to make a decision, a thing to change. There is certainly a limbo in the individual who is trying to decide when to cross the line from timidity or, worse yet, passivity, into a decisive, game-changing activity.
Of the individuals you know who seem to have this capacity for being stretched, you do not rank much beyond a five or six on a one-to-ten scale. This means you suffer a sense of your circulation system being carbonated, your entrails tingling with a massive unrest. You wonder if you are at this midpoint five because you are a writer or because you are caught in the personality tug-of-war.
There is a good-news/bad-news dialectic with regard to limbo. If this quality becomes successfully embedded within characters in a story, the narrative seems to grow with the potential for being memorable and, by degrees, poignant and funny. This is the good news. Most writers you know are keen to look for tools that will allow them to produce more memorable story.
The bad news is that you as writer have to experience the tidal tug of limbo in order to transfer it to the character you mean to demonstrate it. If more than one character has this presence of being in limbo, you must experience it for each.
With luck, you will, at day's end, be able to leave limbo on your note pad or computer screen, but on reflection about story limbos and reality-based limbos where you've tried out the bed and breakfast accommodations, you can see why so many writers have had notable appetites for booze or herbals
Monday, March 30, 2015
In the morning, while you await the rush of boiling water that will jostle its way past the grounds of coffee and on its way to becoming espresso, you are in the hovering state known as limbo.You are aware of being awake, but not as complete in the process as you might wish.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Concentration plays a vital role in the working plan of the writer and the actor. The writer must bring to life whatever landscapes necessary to set the story and, or course, the individuals who nudge the story along. The same may be said of the actor, who must take in setting, agenda, and a sense of awareness to the other characters.
Speaking for your writing self, you rush to get some exploratory detail down on the note pad or the computer screen, anything to attack that vast Sahara of blankness that confronts you when the working day begins. The blank page is daunting, not because you have nothing to say or nowhere to go but for the polar opposite.
There is too much to say, too much to consider. Sometimes you find yourself frozen before the note pad or screen, while a torrent of impressions and diverse activities rush by, reminding you of those moments of nap or a more prolonged sleep, where your images shift from the conscious mode into the dream state.
You are delighted to shift into the overdrive of sleep, where the action and stage directions pick up immediately, driving toward the stories your sleeping brain wishes to perform in order to make sense of the awake time sensations that bombard you.
You are equally pleased when, almost with the force of a voice-over narration, the narrative voice gives you a sentence, a situation, a circumstance already in play or a large rock about to totter down the side of a cliff or an entire side of a hillside becoming successful in detaching itself from its host, then tumbling. Such moments, if they make the cuts, seldom comprise the beginning of the work, rather they speak to you of the energy of the story you are struggling to understand.
The actor has the road map of script and the advantage of consultation with a director. The writer has the editor. Did you really mean to say this? Are you sure this is how the character would respond to this stimulus? The actor has the toolkit of all the previous parts essayed, ferreted out, sorted, made into a concentrated whole.
The actor has the power tool of the toolkit, focus. The actor has learned to focus to the point of convincing the acting self of the truth of the representation of the character presently being portrayed. A simple response of "No, thank you. Not for me," becomes a container for such potential emotions as doubt, confidence, sarcasm, fear.
The writer has the toolkit of any number of stories, with ensembles of any number of characters, all different, all thinking they have the need and obligation to do whatever it is they do, right now. And you have the added tool in your toolkit of being an editor for others. You can and do perform a creditable job with the revision of your own work, often using the improvisation riffs employed by actors. There is for you a rush of excitement and a side effect of confidence when your revision produces some insight you'd missed before. For moments on end, you feel yourself having filled the room with your narrative presence.
This excitement is fated, and you know it, understand the phenomenon for some time now. Much as you get from your own revision, you already know you are not as close to the truth as you would like to be or that you are in fact able to achieve. Good job, the editor says, but don't you want to give some attention to THIS missing detail?
The point: you can with some regularity give constructive notes to the work of other writers, and you can with equal regularity add significant revision to your own work or find unnecessary details in your own work. But you cannot see it all. There are indeed some writers who can and do see it all. These are the most likely to want and listen to notes from others.
This does not mean you believe the writer's growth over time will lead to this totality of vision. There is always someone who can see farther, deeper, and with greater strategic eyes than you. And of course this does not preclude you from seeing farther, deeper, and with greater strategic eyes than others. There is you, pushing, revising, rewriting, to get the next story at the peak of its vision, the soaring hawk or eagle,consulting the lunch menu, spotting the prairie dog or gopher, at a great distance, poking its head above the earth to scan for its own lunch.
You keep in mind the certainty that each new project means you have to learn how to tell story all over again the moment the last one is finished and sent off. At the same time, you have to keep in mind that you are besieged with brief observations, quick bites,fleeting insights, all of which you must reach for as though all of them have the potential to carry you to the peak of your ability, from which point you must jump and risk, as your friend, Wile E. Coyote risks, the abject failure of your efforts.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Neither the document for stage play nor the text of a filmed drama is meant to be read the same way the text for a novel or short story is intended to be read. True enough, a wide variety of specialists read stage plays, for the most part with intentions of causing the text to be performed.
In relation to the number of short stories and novels you've read, the ratio of stage and screen plays is on the short side of a seventy-thirty split. which includes some plays you enjoy well enough to reread them and which further includes plays you've enjoyed reading but never seen performed.
Such documents, because they are meant to be performed rather than read, are expressed in the present tense. John enters. Mary exits. Phil begins to read a newspaper. And of course there are stage directions of another sort, defining how certain of the dialogue is to be spoken. JOHN: I'm afraid--(a pause) MARY: You're afraid what? John: I'm afraid this is not going to work.
In some cases, the writer will substitute for that stage direction in parentheses, the word "beat" for the word "pause." JOHN: I'm afraid--(a two-beat pause)--
This is dramatic biology; the beat is the basic unit of drama. The cellular unit is the scene. An infinite number of beats compose a scene. One or more scenes comprise a larger unit, the act. Not all that long ago, there was a measure of comparison between the three-act play and the novel, the one-act play and the short story. Things change. Some plays from Shakespeare's time were five acts.
Now, as your faculty mate from USC, Lee Wochner, pointed out, the three-act play is the two-act play. But the short story and one-act play remain close equivalents. To complete the picture, you remember discussing Sophie's Choice with its creator, William Styron. "Transforming my novel into a film," he observed, "meant they were essentially cutting a three-act play into a one-act play. I liked the movie, but I loved the book."
Although things do change--evolve is a better word--the shape of story remains the same. Try to think of story as a progression of beats. Not a succession, because a succession means anyone can jump in line, skewing the dramatic orbit. Story progresses, beat by beat.
Stories, whether plays or narrative, are written to present beats, the actions, movements, and thoughts of the characters. Even a simple stage direction such as JOHN EXITS requires some form of interpretation. How does John exit? Is he slouching, skipping, dragging? Is he in high spirits? Is he projecting gloom or worry?
In a real sense, all dramatic information is best presented through one or more beats. The downside extreme is a succession of characters as talking heads, droning rather than speaking their lines, giving no hint of the inner feelings going on behind them
True enough, narrative and drama often compress time. Chapter two can be a year or so after Chapter one. Act two can be "Two years later." Without the beats. You, the reader or viewer, provide the beats.
When we get into actual actions, we experience a moment-by-moment simulacrum of reality. Reader and writer alike depend on every element in a story, gaining new insights with each reread or rewatching. Beats are the vital life of story; they convey the things that stick in memory, trigger highly personal insights, and reveal the short cuts and secret passageways of the personality.
It becomes difficult not to think of the concept of "in the moment" when you consider beats. This is how you draw the moment out of its wrapping and any sense of artifice or newness. It is a new garment you are wearing for the first time, and everyone who sees you in it will comment on it in ways reflective of their own personality. "Great shirt." "Is that a good color for you?" You do not explain story; you break it down to the precise place where its elements reside in that shimmering limbo between individual seconds ticking away and the representation of a day, an hour, a tangible event.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Story relies on change in the same way characters are predicated on desire. You could quit right there, because you'd have said it all, observed the formation of the essential driving forces. But such is the beauty of story that even if you were to stop right there, story would keep moving, set some event in motion, cause some discovery to be made that will have an effect on someone.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
In the course of your employment at nearly every publisher or, for that matter, university, with whom you were on a salary or salary-plus-commission basis, you've experienced either a shift in management or a reassignment of the publisher to a new parent company, or the placement in the new change of command of a new dean. Therefore, you know the drill of the after-acquisitions or management-shift interview, in which you appear before a good-cop/bad-cop team.
In one such publisher meeting, you were discussing your past performance and anticipated future performance with accountants. You did not endear yourself to either of them because of the frequency with which their manner of speech reminded you of Henry Kissinger. In one such university interview, you were dealing with either the chair or vice chair of the philosophy department who, noting your own daytime job status at the time as editor in chief of a scholarly publishing house, was pressing you for ways to present a book project.
Your meeting today with the good-cop, bad-cop team was the first such interview you'd had in nearly four years, at about the time you'd been given an appointment as visiting professor in the College of Creative Studies within the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Your examiners today had existential rather than academic or publishing credentials, which means among other things that you had difficulty telling the good cop from the bad cop to the point where you were open in your wonderment if a good cop were at all on the scene.
"We understand," Cop # 1 said, "that you were at one time quite a prolific writer."
"Roughly ages eighteen through the next ten or so years," Cop # 2 offered in a way that made you almost think you could hear him flipping through pages of a more pad.
Taking your nod as an affirmation of yes, Cop # 1 continued. "Can you help us understand how this prolific performance changed?"
The answer was straightforward enough, or so you thought. You'd begun to consider the implications and practice of revisions and rewrite. To spare them the back-and-forth of banter, you added the beginnings of your experiences with teaching and your investigation of what revision meant.
You could see you'd lost them straight off; a wall of scorn and disrespect began to emerge, brick by brick, the hods of bricks and pallets of mortar beginning to accrue. "You mean to say you published material that was essentially--?"
"--first draft," you said.
"We see," Cop # 1 and Cop #2 said simultaneously.
"I'm afraid you don't," you said, proceeding to paint yourself as the naive narrator you were fast on your way to turning in for a new model, one who would have to retrain himself, away from old habits and toward the unreliability of untested new ones. How were you to know what effects revision would have on you, particularly when your idea of revision to that point had been spell and punctuation checking, looking for repetitions and unintentional humor?
These examiners also wish to know why you are so often late with assignments or barely arriving at your classes on time, and why there are so many notebooks and notepads, filled with your screwy handwriting that is neither cursive nor not.
Here you are, these years later, trying to have a conversation with these two, Cop #1 and Cop #2, who weren't that far removed from earlier inquisitors. Although you've put on some miles and now rely on the kindness of titanium hips, although you now see the world through man-made lenses, your respective personal bests for ten- and twenty-kilometer races and longer outings such as half- and full marathons have lapsed into the shadowy other of the past, you are in many ways the writer you once were,after you'd stepped off the edge of certainty.
You know from reading the Nick Adams stories and the Alice Munro stories, but not the actual terrain. You've never in fact been to the U.P. the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but thanks to Jim Harrison, you believe you could find some of the stray bottles of peppermint schnapps cached away by his characters, just in case. You do know the area around Sunset Boulevard and Sepulveda, before the 405 was cut through; you know where to get glorious bunches of poinsettias which grow there, and you know the cheerful man who offers what he calls the student's special, a half-gallon of pulpy red wine for $2.50. You know which of the medical students to invite to parties, because they invariably bring something to liven up the punch bowl, making for more expansive drunkenness now and more virulent hangovers tomorrow.
You know what and of whom you write as a man in his eighties, just as you often knew what and of whom you wrote when a person in his teens, partially indentured to Sherwood Anderson and John O'Hara, and Ernest Miller Hemingway, that grouch of a father of one of your classmates.
You know why you take so long these days to write things, even though you write every day. You understand the signs and the feelings within while you are understanding the signs. You frequently cannot recall if Ken's Hula Hut was on upper Beverly, Melrose, or Santa Monica, because you were so often drunk on your way and infused with a different kind of drunkenness when the last set was played at one, which gave the staff enough time to get you and the musicians out by closing time of two a.m. You were living part time in the woo woo world of having musicians the likes of Sonny Criss, Hamp Hawes, and Teddy Edwards urging you to do the same thing with your studies and craft that they were doing with music--taking it somewhere it had not been before.
You remember that Ada lived on upper Melrose, and you practically had to climb a rickety flight of stairs next to a billboard to get to her apartment where, if you were fortunate, she did not send you home to sleep it off and next time call before you came and call sober.
Only this morning, you were telling your interviewers, you were making notes for a character in a story, and you realized that, much in the manner of Delmore Schwartz, who is known for one story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," more than any other of his stories and poems, your character, after a life of writing, teaching, brawling, and settling down into a long, domestic funk, was known for one short story out of an output of many. You not only knew the name of the story, it became so intriguing and vital that you had to write it to fully appreciate the irony of its creator and, of course, the irony of you.
You try to explain this to your examiners, Cop #1 and Cop #2. "This," you want to tall them, "is why it takes so long." But they just look at you and shake their heads.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
You are standing in line at one of your favorite places for morning coffee, the line moving slowly because the barista is friendly to customers ahead of you the point of being garrulous.
During the wait to place your order, you have time to reflect why you are here, stranded in this line, when you could with a little more effort, be about ten to twelve blocks farther north, at Peet's, where the coffee is quite a bit better. You could also be at the French Press, which is closer to where you live, and where the coffee is in your opinion even better than Peet's.
The place where you are now was a taqueria, and not a distinguished one at that, in its last incarnation. Bright, airy, comfortable, this shop serves fluffy, fresh pastry or, should you wish, eclectic mixtures of fruit or vegetable drinks; the background music has frequent cycles of genera to your taste and liking, You often bring your coffee habit here to be sated with the notion of spending an hour or so reading, or with your laptop computer.
Standing in line causes you to understand what a trial this line or any line is for you. a condition you recognize as one pushing you to the edges of whatever degree of patience you wear at any given moment. Of all the circumstances and conditions likely to push you beyond well-established boundaries of behavior.
After a quick survey of your inner grouch, you arrive at standing in bank line at the most vexing, theater and restaurant waiting a tie for second place, and being in your car, waiting for access to a gasoline pump at a station your next candidate for saying, "To hell with it," or worse, before moving off in a snit of pique.
A shift in the length of the line brings sight of the serving area, where another inducement for this particular coffee shop can be seen, if it is indeed available on a given day. This feature is a generous container of fresh fruit, bite-sized chunks of pineapple, watermelon, berries, grapes, and, in season, that lovely New Zealand fruit, the kiwi. No luck today, thus an incentive for your impatience alarm to kick in, have you mutter "Forget it," or worse, then drive north toward Peet's, with the righteous indignation conviction that this was were you ought to have gone straight off.
Never mind that there are often lines at Peet's, where the baristas appear to be hired because of their garrulousness. Never mind that you are impatient, eager for coffee, which you could just as well have made at home with your stove-top espresso maker and your newly acquired milk frother. Never mind that you are jonesing for coffee or that your eagerness could be anything less than the addiction you perceive it to be. Never mind that there are in fact mornings where you don't exhibit the slightest interest in coffee until morning has lapsed and you are being summoned instead to afternoon coffee.
Instead, you pay attention to the fact of you being a notional individual with a so-so rating on the impatience scale, attempting to get his day progressing in some sense of productive order. The fact of the matter is, you're better at defining the causes of your impatience than you are of delineating what a sense of productive order means to you. On mornings where there are classes to attend to, either by your immediate presence or your need to have preparations ready by a specific time, productive order is a clearer picture than on those days of no classes or late afternoon or evening classes.
On this day, while you wrestle with the impatient desire to achieve coffee with as much deliberate speed as you can manage, you arrive at a product you more often get when you're alone, either out walking, at your desk at home, or in a coffee shop such at this, already seated at a table, a significant amount of coffee already making its way through your innards. The arrival squeezes an involuntary response from you, somewhere between a squeak and a grunt of recognition.
Your line mates turn to regard you, but you are already well beyond acknowledging them. In your mind now, you see one of your own characters, someone who has been with you long enough so that you have watched him evolve through a progression of activities and professions to the point where you know him well enough to envy him.
Like you, he is now in line. Unlike you, he has already had his first coffee of the day and is not nearly so volatile with his impatience index as you. He is in a bank, his goal to deposit a retainer fee of some significance. All is right with his world, to the point where he has begun to admire the tailoring on the three-piece suit worn by the man in front of him, perhaps even playing in his mind with its possible sources of origin. Paul Stewart? Ermengildo Zenga? Ah, of course; Ben Silver.
But why would a man wear a three-piece suit in Santa Barbara?
Of course the man in line in front of him is not as at piece with himself as your character. In fact, this three-piece-suit-wearing fellow loses his patience at about the moment your character, who is a private detective, realizes the reason for the careful attention to tailoring on the three-piece suit. The man in the three-piece suit is carrying a concealed weapon, a 92FS Beretta, with which he and another accomplice, similarly clothed and armed, mean to rob the bank.
"Thank you for waiting," the garrulous barista tells you. "What can I get for you?"
"Let's start with all your tens and twenties," you think. But you say, "The usual."
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Two words, spoken by characters as long as we have had story to tempt and comfort us, fling open the doors of the human condition, throughout culture, historical era, and any consideration of what is at stake.
If that trust is not forthcoming quickly enough to suit the one who pronounces it, the next step is to add two more words. "Don't you trust me?"
At what point does honesty lose its best policy license and become a burdensome consequence? To put that question in another light, when does truth change from the virtue of its presentation to us in our youth to its potential for moral conundrum in our adult stage?
Ah, you say; it is all relative, reminiscent of those early middle school and high school debate settings, where the truthful guys wore the white hats, the untruthful ones, the liars and dissemblers, wore the black hats, and ideals were worth standing up to a bully to protect.
You were given cause to think of such matters sometime toward the end of last week, when you were asked for your opinion of something. You'd known the person who asked the question for some time, were less guarded about your answer, and indeed were pleased with the ability to be so. This is one place where real time and story overlap; close friends are more inclined to let the guard down in exchanges of conversation and the ongoing Q and A among friends.
But the door to speculation is left open when, in response to your reply, you hear, "Nothing like brutal honesty." It is not spoken with any hint of rancor. A friend, stating a fact. But here we are, at coffee with a group of friends, and two hot-button words, brutal and rancor, have emerged, one from the friend who'd asked your opinion, and you from your response to the friend's conclusion.
Truth relates to the actual state of a circumstance. Honesty becomes associated with a presentation of point of view. An individual may believe he is telling the truth in reporting his version of an event or his opinion of any noun you care to dredge up, any person, place, or thing.
You look beautiful/handsome.
This was among the most imaginative and satisfying meals I have ever eaten.
Your poem caused me to see connections between disparate things in such a positive way that I will always remember the rush of insight.
That music filled me with the same sense of hope and exultation I get when I hear the last movement from the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.
All four of these observations--judgments, if you will--depending on the manner in which they are rendered, have the potential for being complements, but with the slightest turn of point of view, they become untrue, thus lies, their inherent power then to uplift and reward their recipient or to misrepresent the actual opinions of the observer with a devious intent.
Whether the devious intent is to disguise the observer's true feelings, spare the observer the potential embarrassment of relating the actual response, or dissemble because the observer lacks the courage to tell the truth, honesty is the crux. You might also call it the fulcrum on which relationships are based.
Truth and trust are significant conditions in play between characters in story. One poignant example resonated for you in John Steinbeck's near perfect novella, Of Mice and Men, from the first time you read it to the most recent time about a year ago, when you assigned it as one of the texts for a writing course. From the earliest introduction of the two principals, George and Lenny, where their relationship is spelled out, we know how important a force Lenny's trust of George is.
In short order, we come to understand the poignant implications of it, watching the awful complexity of it grow before our eyes. When the elderly worker, Candy, is bullied into allowing his again dog to be put down, the awfulness of the growing complexity becomes a seedling taking hold in our awareness, resulting in an honesty more profound and awful than the brutal honesty of your observation made last week.
Whether the relationship exists in real life or story, the illusions of feelings, personal tastes, and accuracy of vision pelt us like surprise hail storms. "Trust me," one character says to another, and our inner alarm systems respond by wanting to warn the more naive of the characters.
A child of the pulp and plot-driven story, your greatest despair was the difficulty you had in devising the plots of writers you admired. This led you to years of despair and the ultimate realization, gained after you learned, that this was not the sort of story you wished to write or could write with any enduring sense of accomplishment.
Your story is two or more characters, each believing themselves to be right, thus seeing or knowing the actual state of circumstance. Or one character telling another, "Trust me," with the awareness that each has a different goal or purpose in mind.